A Last-Second Save
NHL owners and players shake hands just in time to rescue the Stanley Cup playoffs
Last week the National Hockey League's diamond-anniversary season almost became as worthless as paste. The league's management and its striking players found themselves peering over the brink. And what they saw was...nothing. No Stanley Cup playoffs. No hockey. No future. With time running out on the season, the players and owners decided to can the rhetoric and deal. They ended the first players' strike in NHL history, a 10-day walkout that resulted in a postponement of 30 games and a delay in the start of the playoffs, which begin on April 18.
The players made a flurry of concessions that left some asking why they struck in the first place. The answer, of course, was to prove that they could. After years of impotence, the NHL Players' Association finally unified behind its new executive director, Bob Goodenow. "We got our message through loud and clear," Goodenow said. "We're here, and we're going to be ready to rock 'n' roll. We are not going to be lapdogs."
That may be true, but their bark still seemed worse than their bite. Ultimately the players gave in on most of their demands. Their biggest victory was fending off the owners' attempt to take part of the $11 million the union receives from the sale of players' images for use on trading cards. Every other gain was minuscule. The minimum salary was raised from $25,000 to $100,000, but then most players were making well over the new minimum anyway. Free agency was liberalized, but only slightly. Playoff bonuses and financial awards to trophy winners were increased.
The owners clearly scored on the length of the deal, which will expire in September 1993. Management will then be in a position to lock out the players at the start of the season and gain the upper hand. The owners also won the right to extend the already interminable regular season from 80 to 84 games; the extra games will help pay for the concessions the owners made.
Despite the short-term deal, there is reason to hope the NHL's labor relations will improve. A new coalition of progressives on the management side, men like Bruce McNall of the Los Angeles Kings and Stanley Jaffe of the New York Rangers, prevailed over the cadre of old-time hard-liners. Prodded by the more liberal owners, the league may yet accept the players as partners and work toward an NBA-style system of revenue participation. But they'll likely face a battle from William Wirtz of the Chicago Blackhawks, the crusty chairman of the NHL board of governors, who was perfectly prepared to pull the plug on the season.
At least now both owners and players realize the future of their sport is at stake. Goodenow spent much of April 8 on the phone with player representatives for each of the 22 teams, paving the way for peace with honor. The next day he had four phone conversations with the NHL's president. John Ziegler, who received authorization from the owners to disregard a deadline, set for that afternoon, for scrubbing the season. There wasn't much time left, though: the owners had decided that if the season was to resume, it had to be on Sunday at the latest. Goodenow flew to New York City from his office in Toronto. Face-to-face talks resumed at the NHL offices early last Friday, culminating in a deal just before midnight. The Zambonis were rolling on Sunday for the resumption of the season, and by June 12 someone will be drinking from Lord Stanley's cup.
The NHL's flirtation with disaster may provide a cautionary tale for Major League Baseball and the NFL, both of which seem headed for new rounds of labor-management strife. It's never too early to start talking about solutions. For hockey, it was almost too kilo.